American teenagers' quiet despair
Most statistics are meaningless. But once in a while one comes across a figure that cannot be summarily dismissed.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2006 and 2016 there was a 70 percent increase in the number of white children aged 10 to 17 who committed suicide in this country. For black teenagers, the increase was even higher, at 77 percent. Only 48 American teenagers in 100,000 die each year; at present some 4,600 Americans between the ages of 10 and 24 take their own lives every year, which makes it the third leading cause of death.
The death of even a single child is something that's almost impossible to discuss without finding language inadequate. How can one even begin to come to terms with the fact that in the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world, a growing number of young people, of all races and classes, are taking their own lives? Why is this happening?
A recent report in USA Today offers us a glimpse at the lives of three such young people, all boys.
One evening while his mother was attending a Bible study, J.C. Ruf, a 16-year-old high-school baseball pitcher, took his grandmother out to dinner. When Karen Ruf returned home later that night, she found the house unusually quiet and called her son's name. Receiving no answer she went to the laundry room, where her son often watched movies or played video games with his friends, sometimes setting up an air mattress on the floor. When she opened the door she found his body. There was also a message on his unlocked cellphone: "Everything has a time. I decided not to wait for mine. They say we regret the things we do not do. I regret it a lot."
Tayler Schmid, a 17-year-old who enjoyed hiking in his native upstate New York, was always melancholy in autumn, according to his mother. Once Laurie Schmid suggested that he seek the help of a mental health professional, but he refused. After her son was found dead by his own hand in the family garage, she found herself asking "what if" endlessly. Tayler left behind a video for his family. Laurie has never seen it.
Joshua Anderson, also aged 17, played football in Vienna, Virginia. He took his own life the day before he was scheduled to attend a disciplinary hearing at his high school.
With the best possible intentions suicide awareness groups are blaming these and hundreds of other deaths on a lack of access to mental health care, the reluctance of teenagers, especially boys, to pursue counseling or other treatment, and the high price of antidepressant medications. It is certainly the case that no one who requires help should be afraid or ashamed to seek it, much less deterred from doing so because it is expensive. But mental health care has never been more widely available at any point in the history of civilization. The remaining obstacles to it cannot be solely or even largely responsible for the fact that young people are killing themselves in greater numbers than they were a decade and a half ago. There must be some less facile explanation.
Here things become impossibly murky. To offer, however tentatively, any general hypothesis risks rendering judgment on the conduct of dead children. But I do think that a few general points can be made about young people today and why their experiences differ from those of us born three or more decades ago.
The first is that we have not thought carefully enough about what it means to allow children to spend nearly their entire lives inhabiting a digital world in which there is no adult supervision or even interaction. Joe Parks of the National Council for Behavioral Health calls social media "a race to the bottom."
Children are not stupid. They are extraordinarily clever and sensitive to things that adults, busy with the ordinary tasks of life and immersed in the monotony of routine, have been trained to ignore. There is a quiet despair in this country, one that has manifested itself in the lives of children and adults alike, in the increase in drug taking (death by heroin overdose among teenagers increased by 20 percent last year). Its causes are wide ranging, but surely it has something to do with the subsumption of countless facets of what used to be ordinary life into technology and the disappearance of meaningful work; it is somehow, one thinks, bound up in the social and economic anxieties of generations quietly realizing that they will be less comfortable than their parents and grandparents, with the pressures of conformity and the feeling that every mistake, from a bad score on a quiz to an ill-advised tweet or Facebook post, is inexorable.
One thing that is certain is that the private sorrows faced by children, in 2018 or any other year, are responses to a world created by adults. We can never afford to forget this.